No sweet spot, after all that: Chuck Schumer and the death of the background check

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Schumer, arguing for a background checks amendment. ()
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When Chuck Schumer said he was optimistic about new gun laws following the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut last year, it really meant something.

"Perhaps an awful tragedy like this will bring us together so we can do what it takes to prevent this horror from being repeated again," Schumer said, in his statement reacting to the news from Newtown that day.

Schumer, who helped author and pass the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban in the early 1990s, made a national name as a proponent of gun-control. But he's also a proud legislative tactician who doesn't like to lose.

So Schumer was careful to downplay the prospects for new gun legislation, even after the horrific shootings of a sitting congresswoman in Arizona in 2011, and a roomful of movie-goers in Aurora, Colorado last year.

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After Newtown, though, Schumer thought the debate had shifted. He aggressively took up his gun-control mantle again, and he predicted that senators from both parties would arrive at a legislative "sweet spot": an agreement to expand background checks to cover almost all gun sales.

"If you look at both the likelihood of getting something passed, and the effectiveness of making us safe, the sweet spot is the universal background check," Schumer said in January.

On Wednesday afternoon, a compromise bill to create nearly-universal background checks failed to clear the Senate's 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Republican filibuster, dealing Schumer a rare legislative defeat and leaving advocates to wonder when, if not now, they might ever expect to pass new gun laws.

In the weeks after Newtown, Schumer's side appeared to have the upper hand.

The National Rifle Association emerged from a weeklong silence with a wacky-looking press conference that was widely panned by commentators and suggested the organization might be over-playing its absolutist anti-gun stance.

The New York Post put the N.R.A.'s executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, on the cover under the headline "GUN NUT."

"I think he's so extreme and so tone deaf that he actually helps the cause of us passing sensible gun legislation in the Congress," Schumer said in late December, after LaPierre appeared on "Meet the Press" to call for more armed officers in schools.

Polls showed more than 90 percent of Americans supported the idea of background checks, and, for once, Democrats seemed to rally in unison around the idea.

President Obama, who had mostly avoided the issue during his re-election campaign, promised to use his bully pulpit to press for new gun laws, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to bankroll efforts to pass as robust a bill as possible, and some swing-state Democrats signaled they could support new gun laws.

But the key to a deal was always going to be recruiting a conservative partner who provide sufficient cover within the Republican caucus.

In January, Schumer said he had spoken to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and floated the idea that the Tea Party freshman might even be on board with the idea of expanding background checks.

“I’ve been on the phone this morning talking to conservative Democrats from red, red states, and Republicans from red, red states and say: 'Why can’t we come together on this?'" Schumer told Capital Tonight at the time. “And they’re very open to it.”

When Schumer and Cruz appeared together on "Meet the Press" the following Sunday, Cruz was cooler to the idea, saying he supported strengthening the background check system to exclude more people with mental problems. "I think the fact that we have background checks when people buy firearms, and we prevent felons and those with serious mental illnesses from acquiring them, I think those make perfect sense," he said, stopping short of endorsing a universal proposal.

Cruz also cast doubt on the idea of a "gun-show loophole," saying it "doesn't exist," and threw cold water on the advocates' figure that 40 percent of all gun sales occur at gun shows. (Cruz also tried to sucker Schumer into supporting one of his other bills, on the spot, a presumptuous move that irked the veteran senator.)

After that, there wasn't as much talk of Cruz as a coalition partner.

The most substantive meetings shifted to Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, who generally holds fast to the conservative line, but occasionally prides himself on being a deal-maker.

Advocates dreamed of getting as many as 70 votes for a deal that included Coburn, but after a couple of weeks, the talks reached an impasse over whether records could be kept for the new background checks, and Coburn raised the specter that any record-keeping might be used to create a national gun registry--an idea the N.R.A. perpetually opposes as the first step in a hypothetical federal plot to disarm American citizens.

That idea became the de facto excuse for Republican senators who opposed the bill. Charles Grassley raised it again in committee, and, one by one, senators who withdrew from the deal parroted the N.R.A.'s line raising concerns about the gun registry.

For Schumer, though, any attempt to strip the record-keeping position would cripple the purpose of the background checks in the first place.

"The idea of having no recordkeeping doesn't make any sense to me," Schumer told reporters earlier this month. "That would be like saying we should have no recordkeeping of when you paid your taxes. Well then how do we enforce it? How do we know if you paid your taxes if there's no record? ... You need to have some kind of enforcement. You can't just say we're urging people to do this."

Schumer was explicit in saying that he had no plans for a federal gun registry, but as the longtime face of the gun-control movement, he was a salesman who couldn't be trusted.

So Schumer retreated, at least a bit, from public view, handing the reins to Senator Joe Manchin, a former West Virginia governor, who literally shot the cap-and-trade bill during his last election, to make the case to potential Republicans.

Manchin was eventually able to recruit Pat Toomey, a conservative Republican with an A-grade from the National Rifle Association, to sign onto a compromise bill, which would strengthen gun rights in a handful of areas, while providing background checks for all gun show and online sales.

Toomey specifically requested that Schumer not attend the press conference announcing the deal.

Instead, it fell to Schumer to sell the deal to Democrats who might be skeptical. He called Vice President Joe Biden and Mark Kelly, the husband of Gabby Giffords, and spoke to Michael Bloomberg, who later gave his own full-throated endorsement of the compromise.

At that point, Schumer and others were encouraged as they'd ever been.

"This is the biggest advance we've had in gun control in more than a decade," Schumer said on a conference call with reporters last Wednesday.

But Toomey, whose conservative reputation was built more on deficit and economic issues, struggled to sell the deal to his own caucus, and Schumer was powerless to help.

Susan Collins agreed to back the deal, and so did John McCain--neither of which was a particular surprise--but the fence-sitters that the deal needed to reach the 60-vote threshold steadily announced they wouldn't be backing the deal.

On Tuesday night, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Dean Heller of Nevada both said they wouldn't vote for the deal, citing the federal gun registry.

And on Wednesday morning, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire seemed to seal the amendment's defeat when she said she would vote against it.

"I would urge my colleagues to step up to the plate," Schumer said before the vote. "This one is close."

The Senate vote on the background check amendment to a larger package of gun measures concluded at 4:28.

The final tally: 54 for, 46 against.  

"America will be a less safe place because of it," Schumer said at a press conference after the vote.

"Don't give up faith," he urged the families, who were standing alongside him. "Things change quickly here in Washington."

Schumer cited the examples of gay marriage and immigration.

 

"It takes a long time for these wheels of democracy to grind forward, but they will," he said, adding, "Your actions here will give us the strength, the courage, and the rectitude to win this fight. We will not rest until we win."